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New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children


In 2003, under the auspices of the Royal Society of New Zealand's Science, Mathematics and Technology Teacher Fellowship Scheme, Gordon Campbell conducted this survey to provide a picture of the integration into New Zealand society of refugee children from a variety of ethnic groups and their subsequent children. The New Zealand Refugee and Migrant Service, together with Victoria University of Wellington's history department, hosted the project.

The group with the best response to the survey (by returning the highest number of questionnaire returns86) was the Polish refugee children who arrived in 1944. This is because they were a sizeable cohesive group that had shared an intense experience. They were also unique because they were the first refugee group in New Zealand and in most cases without accompanying parents.

The survey recognised that refugees and immigrants generally have to make adjustments before becoming comfortable in their new surroundings. The refugee children who settled here (and then later their own children) successfully made that adjustment and can be found in all walks of life. The survey also revealed the valuable contribution that ethnic groups are making to New Zealand's multicultural society. For the purpose of this book, the sections of the survey relevant to the Poles are included here.

The Polish refugee children were one of the most homogenous groups of refugees that New Zealand has resettled. There are a number of reasons for this. Everyone in this group had been forcibly removed from their homes in 1940 and 1941. They had all spent up to two years in forced-labour camps or on collective farms in various parts of the Soviet Union. All of them had spent at least two years without their natural parents.

In most cases, this was because both parents had died. And all of them had undergone a great deal of suffering during the journey through the southern Soviet Republics before being taken to orphanages in Iran. It was in these orphanages, established in buildings leased by the Polish Government-in-Exile, that many of the Polish children received their first formal education.

It was originally intended that these children would return to Poland once the war had ended. Because of this, the education they received (both in the page 345orphanages of Isfahan, Iran, and the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, New Zealand) was designed to allow them to reintegrate into post-war Polish society. This was the reason for the medium of instruction being Polish, with little emphasis placed on the learning of English.

By the time World War II ended in 1945, most of these children had been displaced for four to five years. International agreements made by the great powers resulted in them ceasing to recognise the Polish Government-in-Exile and Poland became a communist state under the dominance of the Soviet Union. Because the majority of the children were without parents, the New Zealand Government, with the support of the New Zealand Catholic Church, offered to look after them.

By this time, the camp had a primary, secondary and trade school. Some of the older children were placed straight into jobs. Those who had completed Standard 6 of the Polish primary school were sent to New Zealand Catholic post-primary schools. The younger girls were sent to the Polish Girls' Hostel in Lyall Bay, Wellington, and attended a New Zealand primary school.

The primary-school-age boys initially attended local primary schools in Mangatainoka and Pahiatua, before being sent to Linton Military Camp from where they attended a primary school run by the Marist Brothers in Palmerston North for only one term. From term two, in 1949, they were then accommodated at a Polish Boys' Hostel in Hawera.

The children who were sent to the various Roman Catholic secondary schools throughout New Zealand found this transition particularly difficult. Not only were they totally unprepared to receive instruction and complete lessons in English, but they were split again from what they regarded as their Polish Children's Camp "family". Thrust among strangers, they felt isolated in what was to them an alien culture.

Virtually all of the 86 former Polish children refugees who returned the questionnaire said they could not speak any English when they arrived in New Zealand. Three said their English was poor. For the reasons outlined above, none had been given the opportunity to study English during their displacement period. As well as language difficulties, the Polish children lacked parental guidance and encouragement during a crucial period of their formative years.

One of the former children reported that he could not remember an adult ever engaging in a conversation with him. During his secondary school years, no one had ever told him why he should study. It never occurred to him that a better education would help him to earn more. (Unemployment was virtually unknown in post-war New Zealand, jobs were plentiful and there was less emphasis at that time on the value of remaining in secondary school page 346for more than two or three years.) Despite all these difficulties, the survey's results (Graph 1) indicated that these former Polish refugee children achieved some remarkable successes.

Graph 1

As expected, a large number of those who were in the 11 to 14 year age group when they arrived here left school with no formal qualifications. However, many of these went on to gain trade qualifications. Two who responded to the survey indicated that they did not receive any secondary schooling at all. Despite this, one went on to become a qualified carpenter and the other gained a New Zealand Railways engine driver's ticket. A very low percentage of respondents who were less than 11 years old when they arrived in New Zealand ended up with no formal qualifications.

With the exception of those who did not gain any formal qualifications, there appears to be no particular pattern in relation to the age of arrival and the highest qualification gained. Considering the difficulties that they had come through, a remarkable number of these children gained some form of tertiary qualification. Ten of the former Polish refugee children who returned the questionnaire indicated that they gained university degrees. Surprisingly, of these 10, five were in the 11 to 14 year-old age group upon their arrival in New Zealand.

These former refugee children took up a variety of different occupations. The most popular choice was an occupation that led to a trade certificate. By far the majority of these were carpenters, but a variety of other trades (such as mechanic, panelbeater, electrician, plumber, sheetmetal worker and boilermaker) were also represented. Another type of occupation that attracted large numbers of those who responded to the survey was office and page 347clerical work. Many of those who were involved in office work had gained qualifications from business colleges and technical institutes. Nursing was a popular choice of profession, with some taking on specialised nursing roles, such as midwifery. Teaching was an equally popular choice, particularly for some of the graduates. Bankers, farmers, accountants, social workers, insurance agents and a minister of religion were also represented among those who returned the questionnaire. Several also reached managerial and executive positions in their careers. One, a 13 year-old with no English on arrival, gained a postgraduate diploma and became a public service executive in International Affairs. Others established businesses of their own.